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This article is taken from PN Review 4, Volume 4 Number 4, July - September 1978.

An Episode in the History of Candour Donald Davie

I BELIEVE I can supply a footnote, or perhaps several footnotes, to a document already a quarter-century old, William Empson's The Structure of Complex Words (1951). In chapter 15 of this book Empson considers the semantic history of two English words, 'sensible' and 'candid'. Respecting the latter, he was intrigued by an exchange in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:


'I would wish not to be hasty in censuring any one; but I always speak as I think.'

'I know you do; and it is that which makes the wonder. With your good sense, to be so honestly blind to the follies and nonsense of others! Affectation of candour is common enough-one meets it everywhere. But to be candid without affectation or design-to take the good of everyone's character and make it still better, and say nothing of the bad-belongs to you alone.'


Empson remarks of this, very justly:


Jane Austen's use of the word here . . . is very far from the unquestioning use which could assert an equation in the word as normal. It examines rather sceptically just what kind of truth-telling is involved, and the result is a definition . . . A candid person picks out the good points in a person's character and ignores the bad ones . . .


In other words, in the 1790s, if one were in any way scrupulous and alert and ...


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